The Gloaming are contemplating a trip to the dark side. It’s a week before Christmas and the band are in a former mill in Wiltshire that now houses Real World Studios.
Tonight, all going to plan, the band will make their latest communal excursion to a cinema to see the new Star Wars movie. Some might prefer other fare – Martin Hayes talks enthusiastically about seeing Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies – but the decision has been made.
However, there is work to finish first. It’s the fourth day of recording for the band’s new album, the follow-up to their acclaimed 2014 debut. At this stage, depending on which band member you talk to, there’s 75 to 90 minutes recorded. “We’re in double-album territory here,” notes singer Iarla Ó Lionáird.
They’re in a good space to concentrate on making music. Beyond the vast studio window on this low-lit winter’s day, there’s not a soul to be seen, just a squirrel roaming up a tree beyond the lake. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh returns from a morning stroll to report another wildlife sighting, this time a heron on one of the paths.
The work for the new album began in various locations worldwide during The Gloaming’s 2015 tour.
“We carved out pieces and ideas during the last few years touring by taking about four hours to soundcheck,” Ó Lionáird explains on the phone a few weeks later. “Before the first album, we went away and did a pre-production week; this time, we did that on the road.”
That new material then found its way into the live set and a plot began to emerge about what would be on the new album.
Ó Lionáird credits Thomas Bartlett with keeping track of what emerged on the road. “It is a group effort, but Thomas has always been very good at providing a framework for remembering what we do on the road. If there was someone who collected and tried new things out and discussed things and imagined new structures and ideas, it was Thomas who acted as chairman.”
The flow of the material
In the studio, Bartlett also acts as chairman of the board, the one who gently and subtly shapes the flow of the material and oils the gears. He's there to provide the most elegant of ballast for Ó Lionáird's new reading of Casadh an tSúgáin, a song the singer performed for the Brooklyn film soundtrack.
During the recording, Martin Hayes pulls out an iPad to have a look at Mícheál Ó Domhnaill’s version. “Mícheál was coincidentally the first person to record me in a studio on one of those Gael Linn records I made as a child,” notes Ó Lionáird later.
There’s no messing around in the studio. Tracks that require the five-strong ensemble are recorded quickly. There’s a take, a playback, a consultation at the desk with engineer Patrick Dillett and another take.
It's fascinating to hear the subtle changes in emphasis between takes on a track such as Fáinleog, with Bartett's piano providing the guideropes for the switch in character midway through from Ó Lionáird's voice to Hayes and Ó Raghallaigh's fiddles.
“When you’re working in an ensemble, the biggest thing you have to do is ensure everyone is allowed to be fully actualised,” says Ó Lionáird. “You see people’s game lift even when they’re not foregrounding. When teams are playing beautifully together, it has a poetry of its own. We’re all spokes on a wheel and at one point, your spoke is pointing to 12 and it’s your moment to be plugged in.
“There’s a lot of fine judgment going on from my colleagues. The interplay between the two fiddles is amazing. When each of them steps forward, you see how great each of them is at doing their thing. Martin steps forward and it’s so clear what his intention is. Caoimhín steps forward and you get these magic clouds.
“They both play off each other beautifully on the record, and it’s a real tribute to them that they were able to concoct this gorgeous language between them. I can also hear these little sounds from Dennis [Cahill] popping up in the music like a flare coming out of water.”
Ó Lionáird describes the five days recording the new album as “very rapid, very frenetic in some ways”, a far cry from his usual studio habits.
“I’m a creature of the studio myself, though I am not accustomed to working so fast, except with this band. Although I’m from a traditional background, my studio approach is rock’n’roll, where I might typically spend a year-and-a-half making a record. Can you imagine? My own solo records come up every five years, so they’re like watching paint dry by comparison, so to speak.
“But here, I’m with these incredible musicians who can really turn it on in real time right in front of you, and there’s no need for the paint-drying painful process. It was fast but that’s how this band operates.
“We were eager to get in to see if what we were feeling on the road manifested itself in the studio. You’re never sure. The feelings you get onstage are so powerful that you can have a lot of conviction about what is going on and revved-up about it, but the studio is a much more thoughtful space.”
The next phase
With the album ready, the band's next phase had already begun. But Ó Lionáird cautions against expecting to see The Gloaming playing every shebeen, tent and field in the coming months. "We've dates in the diary, and the vibes after the recording are good, but we'll never have as much time on the road as people either imagine or would want us to have.
“Maybe that’s a blessing, because it means we have to use our time right and not waste our own or the audience’s time and hit the mark. We have to enjoy the idea that music makes things happen and things happen when you’re making music.
“I do feel we have a stronger record, I do feel our feet are stronger now. I don’t think we’ve exhausted the initial sandbox. We’re not too far removed from our initial creative area so there’s still plenty we can do. In terms of pushing the boat out, we’ve pushed it out in the water, but there’s a whole lot of rowing we can still do.”
- The Gloaming 2 is out on February 26th. The band begin a run of sold-out dates at Dublin's National Concert Hall on February 27th